The Casual Blog

Tag: Hitler

Our cruise on the Danube, toilets, facism, and Fred Rogers

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Budapest, Parliament

We just got back from taking a cruise along the Danube River, Budapest to Passau, five countries in seven days.  We saw castles, palaces, and cathedrals, art and technology, and some beautiful countryside.  It was stimulating and fun.  

Unfortunately, our air conditioner died.  When we got back on July 4, it was really hot (in the 90s), and our apartment was stifling.   Our cat and plants were still alive, but struggling. Sally got a qualified technician to check it the next day, and he diagnosed a failed motor. He ordered the part, which is expected in tomorrow.       

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It was pleasantly cool when we were in Europe (high 60s to low 70s), and things looked to be working well.   They appeared to be trying to address climate change, as we saw lots of electric trams, solar panels and wind turbines.    

But I was particularly impressed with their toilet systems.  Unlike in U.S. cities, we found that there were usually clean well-functioning public restrooms conveniently located. They charge for admission (up to one Euro), but it’s totally worth it. As a tourist spending hours poking down their lovely winding streets, I was so grateful.  

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Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

As we looked at very old cities, I was struck by the multiple levels of culture that existed side by side, like distinct layers in sedimentary rock, or a slice of linzer torte.  In places we could see bits of ancient Rome, medieval culture, Renaissance, Baroque, neo-classical, and other influences all in the same church or castle, or street.

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Matthias Church, Budapest

 

The cathedral building efforts involved multiple generations of humans cooperating.  Each one is unique, an expression of a specific local culture, and some of them are really beautiful. How did they organize themselves and then keep on going for many decades? The pay can’t have been very good. And they didn’t have any power tools! For all the Church’s problems,  I give it credit for animating so much creativity.

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Passau, Germany

Our cruise on the Danube was on the Viking Legend.  The Viking staff was friendly and very competent, and organized the trip in a way that made a lot of sense for a first time visitor.  We would typically cruise to a new destination in the evening, have breakfast, and then have a guided tour in the morning. We’d then have lunch either in town or on the boat, and explore on our own in the afternoon.   Then, back to the boat for a cocktail, dinner, and after dinner entertainment.

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A cafe in Passau

 

The guided tours were by local folks who were knowledgeable and good-humored.  We were not especially knowledgeable about the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburgs, and other political history of the area, and got an introduction that made us want to learn more.  We got better at distinguishing baroque, rococo, and Neo-classical styles.

It was also interesting to hear personal stories of the guides who’d grown up in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic under the Communist system.  Our Czech guide mentioned that after the fall of the Berlin wall, he was the first kid in his school to visit the west and get Legos. Back home, the other kids were wild for those Legos!

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Bratislava, Slovakia

There were about 180 guests on our ship.  Most of them were “seniors,” though there were a few younger families with kids, and one cute pair of honeymooners.  At meal time, most people we shared a table with were pleasant enough to chat with, and there were a few we quite enjoyed.

We had one afternoon of cruising the Danube between Krems and Vienna.  The weather was cloudy and threatening to rain, but it was lovely seeing the the mountains and villages shrouded in fog, and the ruins of ancient castles.

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As there was so much impressive architecture built over hundreds of years, it took some time to understand how much was pointlessly destroyed by British and U.S. bombing in WWII.  While killing more than 400,000 German and Austrian civilians, we all so took a terrible toll on these civilizations’ cultural treasures. There’s a good, though painful, account of this terror bombing in Daniel Ellsberg’s recent book, the Doomsday Machine.  But I’m happy to say that the Germans and Austrians we met didn’t seem bitter about this, or to be expecting an apology.  They’d rebuilt with loving and obsessive precision some of their most treasured buildings, and moved on.

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Passau, Germany

There were several guides who said interesting things about Hitler.  They seemed to view him as evil, but also viewed their forefathers as in part his victims. It’s hard for most of us to understand the appeal of Antisemitism, but there’s no denying it really excited some Europeans.  The idea that the Jews were a threat to society was, of course, completely crazy, but having an enemy group gave them a sense of purpose. It brought them a kind of unity and provided a simple (but wrong) way to address their social problems    

At any rate, our own recent experience with ascendant racism and xenophobia made me much more understanding and forgiving towards those who supported or failed to stop Hitler.  Here, as elsewhere, Trump is teaching us some true but sad lessons. Words that draw us together as a tribe by pretending to racial superiority are extremely appealing to many. At the same time, those same words, dehumanizing those who are physically or culturally different, make some of us fearful and suggestible.  And politicians who figure this out can manipulate these excited and fearful people. Those of us who aren’t so fearful can hardly believe it’s happening, or that we have to actively oppose it.

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Sally in Salzburg

On Saturday we went out to an air-conditioned movie  theater (the Rialto) to see the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor about Fred Rogers.  I remember trying to watch his show with my children when they were small, and finding it so slow that it was literally impossible to sit through.  But of course, I was not part of the target audience. Rogers took the needs and fears of small children very seriously, and addressed them with uncanny respect and love.    The film was really touching, and a welcome reminder that there is goodness in the world.  

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Me and my beer, Hofbrauhaus, Munich

A wedding, glass, and unknown history

Paul after the wedding on the American Rover out of Norfolk

We went to Virginia Beach last weekend to celebrate my brother’s wedding and catch up with the Tiller clan.  The wedding was outside in a yard beside the intercoastal waterway, and it was a bit on the chilly side, but sunny.  My brother Paul played his banjo as his bride arrived, and the couple seemed very happy. Afterwards we moved inside for lunch, and caught up on family news.  

We Tillers have been fortunate in many ways, not least in that we still love each other, despite our differences in politics and religion. As my sister Jane observed, people these days are very polarized, and it’s gotten hard to communicate across tribal lines. But we still had plenty of common ground, and had some invigorating discussions.     

Sally and Jane at the Chrysler Museum

The next day we visited the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, and spent a couple of hours looking at their impressive glass collection, which we missed when we previously visited.  Much of the enjoyment for me was about history and craftsmanship, rather than individual artistic vision.  But there were some pieces that were definitely art, and were moving.  It made me look at our household glass differently, and consider it as part of a long tradition of craft and experimentation.

In iris at Raulston Arboretum

Speaking of art and history, this past week there was a significant opening:  the new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Way too few Americans know much about the terrorism against black Americans in the first half of the twentieth century.  Thousands of black people were publicly tortured and killed, some in front of crowds of white people who viewed the violence as entertainment.

The new memorial to the victims of this horrendous violence sounds powerful in just the way the D.C. Vietnam memorial is powerful:  making the suffering concrete and undeniable in a beautiful and dignified way. There was a fine description of it in the Washington Post, including good photographs.    I’ve added it to my list of places to visit.

Just one more thing about our racism, and then I’ll stop.  This week the New Yorker has a fine and unsettling piece by Alex Ross called the Hitler Vortex.    I’d recently read most of the new biography of Hitler by Volker Ullrich, which was quite good, but Ross provided new perspectives on the conflicting schools of Hitler scholarship, and the social forces that brought Germany to acknowledge its enormous crime against the Jews.  

As Ross notes, Hitler greatly admired America’s genocide of native Americans and its elaborate system for repression of African Americans.  This should give us pause. Unlike the Germans, who have acknowledged and worked to atone for the crimes of the third reich, we Americans for the most part maintain our ignorance and innocence as to these enormous racial crimes.  Perhaps one day we’ll teach our school children what really happened, how it was horribly wrong, and how we need to be continually vigilant to prevent such evil from ever recurring.

In the meantime, we need to do what we can, and stay sane.  For a dose of beauty and clarity, I recommend a walk at Raulston Arboretum, where the irises and early roses are blooming.  I took these flower pictures this weekend.

Tree behavior, Hitler, conspiracy theories, and the truth about Hillary’s email

Big Woods Road, near Jordan Lake in Chatham County, November 5, 2016

Big Woods Road, near Jordan Lake in Chatham County, November 5, 2016

Saturday morning was brisk, sunny, and clear. I drove Clara out to Jordan Lake, where I put her in sport mode and enjoyed the winding country roads. We drove up one of my favorites, Big Woods Road, and stopped at various spots to look for birds and colorful trees.

Clara, pausing on Big Woods Road

Clara, pausing on Big Woods Road

I’ve been reading The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben. Wolleben has spent his life as a forester closely observing trees, and has also assimilated a great deal of research into their biology and behavior. As the title indicates, he contends that trees are social plants that cooperate with sophisticated systems for communication, including underground connections of roots and fungi and various airborne chemicals. They work together to ward off predators, withstand weather, and take care of the young. It’s amazing! There’s a nice overview of the book at Maria Popova’s wonderful blog, Brainpickings.
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On a more somber note, I’ve been reading the new biography of Hitler by Ullrich Volker. It covers H’s birth to the start of WWII. It’s a good read, and offers insights into (though no definitive solution to) the great mystery: how could an intellectually mediocre charlatan maniac seize and hold dictatorial power, with such dire consequences? At the end of WWI, Hitler quickly rose in political life as a popular speaker on the theme that there was a vast, powerful Jewish conspiracy that accounted for Germany’s problems.

This bizarre conspiracy theory was widespread at the time, and of course has never disappeared. How do such crazy ideas take root and propagate? There seem to be a lot of them flying around these days. A case in point: militiamen who believe the Second Amendment is under siege. The NY Times had a fascinating piece yesterday on these folks by David Zucchino, with good pics by Kevin Lyles.

They are mostly white, rural, and working class, and they like to get together on weekends to shoot their weapons. Zucchino got them to talk. They are passionately convinced of many nutty ideas: Hillary is coming to get their guns, ISIS is invading the country, the Democrats are rigging voting machines. Also, they want to make America great again. All I can say is, Yikes!
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Only slightly less bizarre is the meme, now rampant, that Hillary’s email handling shows that she is unusually dishonest and corrupt. Matthew Yglesias of Vox did a good piece unpacking this tale and showing it to be based on nothing. Hillary’s handling of email was not illegal, and there’s no basis for accusing her of dishonesty. And yet the networks have devoted more air time to this non-story than every other policy issue combined.

Yglesias concludes as follows:

One malign result of obsessive email coverage is that the public is left totally unaware of the policy stakes in the election. Another is that the constant vague recitations of the phrase ‘‘Clinton email scandal’’ have firmly implanted the notion that there is something scandalous about anything involving Hillary Clinton and email, including her campaign manager getting hacked or the revelation that one of her aides sometimes checked mail on her husband’s computer.

But none of this is true. Clinton broke no laws according to the FBI itself. Her setup gave her no power to evade federal transparency laws beyond what anyone who has a personal email account of any kind has. Her stated explanation for her conduct is entirely believable, fits the facts perfectly, and is entirely plausible to anyone who doesn’t simply start with the assumption that she’s guilty of something.

P.S. On Monday morning at the gym I listened to the podcast version of the latest This American Life, which included a segment on Hillary and the emails. Garrett Graff, a veteran reporter, came to pretty much the same conclusion as Yglesias: there’s no actual scandal. Graff noted that he, like other reporters, always hopes investigations will lead to titillating revelations of misconduct. We often see what we want to see, whether it’s there or not, which may account for some of the press’s egregiously biased “scandal” reporting of the email story. Those reports started a feedback loop that has grown very loud and shrill and overwhelmed our ability to consider the facts.

Trump and Hitler

Lake Lynn, October 1, 2016

Lake Lynn, October 1, 2016

When I left work on Friday, the weather was pleasant, and I was thinking of hitting a few golf balls on the practice range, but I had an almost flat tire. Fortunately, Murray’s Tires was still open. I love those guys! As soon as I parked, before I could get out of the car, one of them was beside me asking if he could help. He had in stock a sporty used Continental Extreme Contact for a very reasonable price, and 20 minutes later I was back in business.

On Saturday evening, Sally and I walked over to Fayetteville Street, which was closed to traffic and lined with craft stands and food trucks, and sampled the free performances at the IBMA bluegrass festival. There were many talented fiddlers, banjo pickers, mandolin strummers, dobro sliders etc. making bouncy music. At The Haymaker, a new cocktail bar, I tried the Fabuloso, with vodka, mezcal, and lavender syrup, which was profoundly flavorful. For dinner we did The Remedy Diner, a casual veggie-friendly spot with a rock-and-roll vibe, where I had the tasty Tempeh Tantrum sandwich. We discussed the difficult question of how a lot of otherwise normal people can support Donald Trump.

Godwin’s Law has it that the longer and more vigorously an internet dispute continues, the likelier it is that one of the arguing parties will compare another to Hitler. This is a clever reminder of the evils of emotional hyperbole and the value of civility. The comparison is almost always over the top.
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There was, however, a review by Michiko Kakutani of a new Hitler biography by Volker Ullrich in the NY Times that seemed startlingly relevant to our present moment. I was struck enough to pay for the ebook, which is now waiting on my iPad to be read when I do my trip to southern Utah next week. Check out these excerpts, and see if you too think that Hitler’s personality and methods sound disturbingly like someone we all have been watching with stunned amazement:

Hitler was often described as an egomaniac who “only loved himself” — a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization and what Mr. Ullrich calls a “characteristic fondness for superlatives.” His manic speeches and penchant for taking all-or-nothing risks raised questions about his capacity for self-control, even his sanity.
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Hitler was known, among colleagues, for a “bottomless mendacity” . . . . A former finance minister wrote that Hitler “was so thoroughly untruthful that he could no longer recognize the difference between lies and truth” . . . .
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Hitler was an effective orator and actor, Mr. Ullrich reminds readers, adept at assuming various masks and feeding off the energy of his audiences. . . . “Hitler adapted the content of his speeches to suit the tastes of his lower-middle-class, nationalist-conservative, ethnic-chauvinist and anti-Semitic listeners,” Mr. Ullrich writes. He peppered his speeches with coarse phrases and put-downs of hecklers. Even as he fomented chaos by playing to crowds’ fears and resentments, he offered himself as the visionary leader who could restore law and order.
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He often harked back to a golden age for the country, Mr. Ullrich says, the better “to paint the present day in hues that were all the darker. Everywhere you looked now, there was only decline and decay.”
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Hitler’s repertoire of topics, Mr. Ullrich notes, was limited, and reading his speeches in retrospect, “it seems amazing that he attracted larger and larger audiences” with “repeated mantralike phrases” consisting largely of “accusations, vows of revenge and promises for the future.”
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He benefited from a “constellation of crises that he was able to exploit cleverly and unscrupulously” — in addition to economic woes and unemployment, there was an “erosion of the political center” and a growing resentment of the elites. The unwillingness of Germany’s political parties to compromise had contributed to a perception of government dysfunction, Mr. Ullrich suggests, and the belief of Hitler supporters that the country needed “a man of iron” who could shake things up. “Why not give the National Socialists a chance?” a prominent banker said of the Nazis. “They seem pretty gutsy to me.”
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Hitler’s ascension was aided and abetted by the naïveté of domestic adversaries who failed to appreciate his ruthlessness and tenacity . . . . Early on, revulsion at Hitler’s style and appearance, Mr. Ullrich writes, led some critics to underestimate the man and his popularity, while others dismissed him as a celebrity, a repellent but fascinating “evening’s entertainment.”

It’s nice to think that if you and I had been Germans in 1933, we would not have been among those who were seduced by him. Also, it may be we wouldn’t have been among those who dismissed him as merely a pathetic clown and ignored him. Perhaps we’d have been very brave, even when things started to get dangerous.

With reasonable luck, we won’t have to put ourselves to that dire test. That fellow whose personality defects and rabid style might remind you of Hitler continues to shoot himself first in one foot, and then the other, and the mainstream press is finally treating him less as a joke and more as a menace.

The WSJ had a good piece about his Atlantic City casino business that pretty well put stake through the heart of the fable that he was a brilliant business success. The story compared his casinos to others there, and found that they earned much less and fired many more employees, while going through multiple bankruptcies. The only person who made money out of the financial debacle was – guess who?
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